Illini Continue Spring Preparations

The Fighting Illini football team is continuing spring practices this week before taking time off for spring break. There is still much to learn, but the enthusiasm and hard work are evident. Illini coach Tim Beckman is especially pleased with his senior leadership.

Illinois held its fifth spring practice inside Memorial Stadium Monday evening. Since media are not allowed to observe practice, much of our information is provided by head coach Tim Beckman prior to the next scheduled practice. Thus, he spoke yesterday about Saturday's effort.

"It was the first day of padded practice. I still think we've got a ways to go, but we've had up-tempo practices, and the kids are buying in and doing what the coaches ask them to do.

"(Saturday) was a quick turnaround. We had just gotten off the field on Friday evening, and then we were out here in less than 12 hours. It was a little sluggish; I expect a better tempo."

Most news is good, although Corey Lewis will require another knee surgery. And running back Donovonn Young is still wearing a purple jersey signifying no contact. He is healing from a reoccurring stress fracture in his foot and said he hopes to be practicing again after spring break concludes.

Beckman says multiple leaders are popping up, especially quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole plus a strong senior class.

"I think Nathan's done a great job. I think he's a special young man, no question about it, on and off the field. I think Reilly's done some good things too. You always lean a little on the quarterbacks, and those two have really stepped up as leaders.

"I can't be more proud of the way the seniors are playing. Michael Buchanan, Terry Hawthorne, Supo Sanni, Graham Pocic...Hugh Thornton had a great practice the other day. I'm proud of the way those guys are playing."

He is pleased with the maturity and dedication shown by defensive end Buchanan.

"He's a very talented young man, and he continues to get better and better every practice. He's got that sense of urgency that you like to see as a college football coach."

Offensive line coach Luke Butkus was asked to assess the progress of his linemen after one week.

,P>"It's been great. There's been ups and downs, but the kids are gonna work. Do we need to get better, yes. It's not gonna be easy. If it was easy, they wouldn't ask me to do it; I wouldn't be here."

He was intentionally vague regarding the development of needed depth along the line.

"Yeah, I have an idea. We have some guys that can play football."

Butkus will lean on his seniors Pocic and Thornton.

"Without a doubt. My picture is on the wall, but it's their room right now. They're doing a tremendous job. Graham is not a vocal guy, but he's stepping up. Guys respect Hugh. He's a tough, hard-nosed kid. Both are doing a great job."

With 150 junior prospects plus their families and coaches descending on Memorial Stadium Saturday, some wonder if so many players might be counterproductive for recruiting purposes since so many of them won't be receiving Illinois offers. But Beckman sees it as a positive.

"It was great. We got out of here about 7:30-8:00 pm. It was great to be able to show these high school players in this state, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, etc. a special place.

"All of them have dreams to play BCS football. They come out here and look and experience what it's like to be a BCS player. They have those dreams, and then they go out and prove it every Friday night.

"They get the opportunity to play major college football. I may be biased, but in my opinion, it's the greatest sport out there. It gives people opportunity to get better academically, socially, throughout the community, and of course as a football player too."

The IPOP Illini players of the Saturday practice were Josh Ferguson on offense, Akeem Spence on defense and Ryan Lankford on special teams. Beckman chose no unsung hero, but he did ask some prospects for help picking the others.

"We let some of the players help us. When I talked to a couple of the high school players, I asked, 'Who caught your eye?'"

Beckman is tremendously well-prepared for his practices. He has everything set up long in advance, and he keeps to his schedule.

"We've got a plan for all 15 practices. They're already scripted. We'll make a few changes script-wise, but the structure of our practices is already completed."

Have there been any major surprises so far?

"No, not really. One day in pads, so you don't get to see a whole bunch. I like the way they're practicing, and I like their intensity. We've definitely got to get ourselves better as a team."

The Illini next practice Wednesday evening. They will go home for break after Friday's practice.

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